Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford said he was aware anxiety levels were spiking Thursday as it became clear Northwest Florida had again found itself directly in the path of tropical weather.
At a mid-afternoon press conference Ford sought to calm the nerves of residents whose lives are still impacted by devastation wrought last year by fearsome Hurricane Michael.
Tropical Storm Nestor, if a storm presently churning in the southwest quadrant of the Gulf of Mexico strengthens enough to earn that title, will be “nothing like we faced” last October, Ford said.
“We are optimistic this will be a slight wind and rain event,” Ford said, while nonetheless warning people to remain vigilant as the storm moved east across the warm water of the Gulf.
Tropical storm warnings were issued at 10:41 a.m. Thursday for coastal areas as far west as Mississippi and stretching across Florida’s Panhandle to Franklin County.
The weather was expected to arrive in Northwest Florida between Friday afternoon and Friday night, National Weather Service meteorologist Jason Beaman said. Plans called for the tropical storm warning to be lifted at 8 a.m. Saturday as the storm moves northeast toward Tallahassee.
But as Thursday progressed there was some question as to whether the anticipated storm would even develop as it advanced on Northwest Florida.
“Some of thunderstorms that were quite vibrant earlier today have fizzled out just a little bit,” said Patrick Maddox, Okaloosa County’s chief of emergency management. “We don’t want to hang our hat on that, though, that that’s going to be a trend because the warm waters of the Gulf are quite persistent this time of year. We just have to watch and see.”
With the storm not anticipated to make landfall before late Friday afternoon at the earliest, school districts across Northwest Florida — including Bay, Okaloosa and Santa Rosa counties — all announced that school would be in session.
According to the Walton County Sheriff's Office, the School District will continue school as planned on Friday. However, all after-school events are canceled.
Okaloosa and Santa Rosa counties also announced that after-school activities, including Friday night football games, had been postponed indefinitely. Joey Harrell, the assistant superintendent for administrative services in Santa Rosa County, said athletic directors would be responsible for rescheduling events.
The Destin Parks and Recreation Department canceled all weekend activities.
Bay County school officials held off Thursday afternoon on making the call to cancel sporting activities or even to postpone them until Monday, as state athletic officials had given them clearance to do.
“Everything is still scheduled at the moment, but everybody is making backup plans in case we need them,” Rutherford and Bay County Athletic Director Kirk Harrell told the Panama City News Herald. “Everyone’s trying to prepare for the worst case.”
The Walton County School District issued a statement about noon that said the storm’s development was being watched closely and no decision had been made concerning closures or extracurricular activities. School Superintendent Russell Hughes failed to return numerous phone calls. Other school officials, including School Board Chairman Bill Eddins Jr. also did not return calls.
Maddox said Okaloosa residents should expect from 1 to 3 inches of rain in most areas, 3 to 5 in some and possible isolated pockets of up to 8 inches.
“We are going to get some rain,” he said.
Peak winds were anticipated to reach 35-40 mph, with gusts of up to 50 mph.
While no storm surge is expected to impact the area, coastal flooding might be seen in some low-lying areas, Maddox said.
Santa Rosa County officials issued a news release warning residents and visitors to be wary of rip currents as the storm approached and until it subsided. In a 3 p.m. release, the county stated that the speed of the storm was such that it was expected to have passed through the area by early Saturday.
The speed with which it was expected to move also diminished the chances of flooding, the release said.
No emergency shelters were going to be opened in Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Walton or Bay counties unless conditions deteriorated greatly as the storm approached.